If you've read this far, you're probably under the impression that this is going to be a movie review. I feel I should warn you now that it's really more of an essay. If you haven't seen Rear Window, do go out and rent it.
Rear Window is, at heart, an exploration of voyeurism. Jimmy Stewart's "L.B. Jeffries" is a photographer, which is a person that by definition is supposed to be an observer. Yet the film hints at his long history of becoming embroiled in events that he is only supposed to be taking pictures of. So it should be no real surprise that he feels compelled to act on his suspicions that his neighbor Lars Thorwald (menacingly played by a surprising non-avuncular Raymond Burr) has killed his wife, and she is not, in fact, "visiting in the country."
He, of course, can't act directly. 1954 was the heyday of the totally immobilizing plaster cast, and Jeffries is unable to leave the apartment. One of the most interesting features of the film, cinematographically, is that Hitchcock chose to keep the camera with Stewart's character at all times. So the audience, as well, is stuck in his apartment for the entire film, reinforcing the voyeurism of Jeffries, and making us co-conspirators in his machinations.
"What happens when people start looking out at a world that can't see them?" asks Rear Window. And the answer it provides is the quantum-mechanically correct one. In fact, says the film, by observing something, you become a participant in it, inescapably.
Jeffries believes he has witnessed a murder, and therefore has an obligation to bring the truth to light, despite all the evidence that no foul play has occurred, and the hearty disinterest of his police inspector friend. Underlying his noblesse oblige, though, is the assumption that he himself is separate from the events he observes; that he can hold himself apart from the world, while still influencing events in it.
He finds out this is not the case, when Lars Thorwald finally comes lumbering through his door. Trapped in a wheelchair, and totally defenseless, Jeffries' only means of self defense is the flash of his camera, which he uses in the dark room to temporarily blind Thorwald and slow his inevitable approach. The bludgeoning symbolism here, of course, is that the world can't hurt you if you expose it to the light of observation.
Jeffries ends up getting thrown out the window. So much for that theory.
Ultimately, though, Thorwald is brought to justice for the murder which he did, in fact, commit, and Jeffries ends up with another broken leg, and several more months of recovery in which to ponder his vindication. So the film makes no judgments of whether or not Jeffries was right or wrong in his voyeuristic activities, but merely points out that if you choose to take part in events, you might not be as safely hidden as you think you are.
But what does any of this have to do with us? Consider, if you will, the parallels between Hitchcock's "rear window" and the internet. Both are windows into a world outside our own small experience. Both allow a sense of being able to see without being seen, and to interact anonymously. Jeffries writes an anonymous note to Thorwald, accusing him of the murder, and later places a similar phone call. Readers of this site can post anonymous notes, saying whatever they want, in the belief that no one can ever know it was them, and therefore what takes place online is somehow apart from the real world.
This can be a good thing. Anonymous whistle blowers can force changes in even the biggest of corporations, and bring truth to light that would otherwise have remained buried. But it can also lead people to abandon the rules of social interaction that they've long been taught, and say things they'd never even consider saying to someone's face.
Flamewars have long been a staple of online communication, and I believe that the "Rear Window Effect" has a lot to do with it. While in a face-to-face conversation with someone, you might say "Perl has been useful in the past, but Python has a much cleaner syntax and will come to be the glue language of choice in the near future, I think," the same person, posting anonymously or pseudonymously online, might phrase it as "You idiot! Anyone who still puts up with all that crap Perl makes you spew out must have a screw loose! Python rules."
The basic difference between the two is not the opinion, really, but the context. The internet permits a weird form of voyeuristic interaction, enabling you to communicate with many other people, and yet simultaneously forget that there are people on the other end of the wire at all. When there is no sense of "society" enforcing its rules of interaction, those rules tend to be very easy to forget. And the larger the internet grows, the less it is able to maintain the traditional "netiquette" that formerly served in place of RL social pressure. A bunch of people all forgetting that there are social rules for interacting with others are not a very good source of civilizing influence.
Much like "Rear Window," I have no real concluding pronouncements to make on the subject, other than to say that sometimes voyeurism and anonymous interaction can be good, and sometimes not so good. I do wonder, though, if the curious novelty of being able to speak without apparent responsibility, and the frequent negative consequences thereof, will in time wear off. If, in fact, the net will develop it's own means of applying social pressure to it's participants and enforcing civility, perhaps after too many people have endured too many flamewars, and finally gotten fed up with it.
Like L.B. Jeffries, we'll just have to keep watching.